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The Termination Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

Codee sat behind her obnoxiously large desk. Her company contracted with a well-known office supply chain to provide all the furniture in the hospital. The salesman called it engineered wood and extoled its virtues as he proudly relayed the fact it was the greener choice. She would have preferred a smaller desk made of solid oak, but the design committee only played at asking her opinion.

 

Some days Codee really hated her job, and today was one of those days. At least it was Friday afternoon and she could leave after this last, distasteful task. She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed as her employee relations coordinator, Sharlie, poked her head in the door.

 

“You almost ready?”

 

The levelheaded young woman was joining them for the meeting and she was thankful for that established protocol. Maybe she could talk some sense into Hilda, the admitting supervisor, who definitely fit her name. Whenever Codee heard Hilda’s name, she imagined a mean old witch, and the hard-edged leader could give the worst boss in the United States a run for his or her money. To date, the numerous coaching sessions hadn’t managed to change Hilda’s perspective on anything, because once she made up her mind, no one could sway her.

 

“Remind me again why we’re conducting a pre-termination proceeding on last month’s employee of the month. For God’s sake, the woman has more caring cards, star awards, and general accolades from patients, coworkers, and administration than any other employee in the brief time I’ve been here.” Codee took a sip from the water bottle on her desk.

 

“I know, I know, but after Hilda put that blasted audit log in place, she jumped on Sawyer every time that she didn’t meet the ninety-eight percent standard set for the department. Hilda has already gone through the first three steps in our process.” Sharlie ran her hand through her hair.

 

“Half her staff can’t meet the standard, so why is she holding Sawyer to that impossible expectation?” Codee grabbed the package of gum next to her monitor and pushed against the foil back to pop out one of the little white squares. Fearing her breath reeked of coffee, she popped the mint gum into her mouth, hoping to mask the odor.

 

“She argued that the others are too new and need more training, but because Sawyer has been here a year, she should be able to register patients with that level of accuracy. I don’t agree and I tried to steer her in a different direction, but she was adamant.”

 

“So what’s Sawyer’s accuracy rate?”

 

“Ninety-seven percent.”

 

“You’re kidding, right?” Codee asked in exasperation.

 

“I’m afraid not.”

 

“This is getting out of hand. She’s the third person this year Hilda has terminated. I need to talk to Tim. My recommendation would be to give Hilda a severance agreement and find a new supervisor. The turnover in that department is not coincidental. She either fires or chases away every good admitting clerk we hire. I wish that social services position would open soon. Isn’t Sawyer a social worker?” Codee grabbed a yellow pad and selected one of the pens in the mug next to her phone.

 

She scribbled on the pad to make sure the pen worked. She didn’t know why when one stopped working she placed it back in the mug instead of tossing it in the trash. It was just one of her small quirks. Sharlie often chastised her for her inefficiency when she did things like that but never in a mean-spirited manner.

 

“Uh-huh. She finished her master’s degree about six months ago, but we haven’t had a position open or else we would have transferred her in a heartbeat.”

 

“Okay, that’s the angle I’ll try to take with Hilda. We can encourage her to wait a little while longer because I heard we’re about to post a job in that department. I just need a couple more days. Come on, you can back me up on this.”

 

Codee stood and walked around her desk. She grabbed her down jacket on the way out of the office. She flashed to a mental image of Sawyer crouched down at eye level with a young boy who had scars from severe burns on his face and hands. His body had been tense until Sawyer’s low, rumbling voice seemed to transform him. His joyous laughter after whatever she had whispered to him filled the waiting area and brought forth Codee’s appreciative smile. Sawyer’s impact on patients was nothing short of a miracle.

 

Codee remembered when she’d met the enchanting woman in new-employee orientation. Sawyer had pulled her long, chestnut hair back into a neat ponytail, and the gentle waves cascaded down her back. Although Sawyer had just finished a twelve-hour night shift, those soothing, green eyes never wavered in their intensity as she appeared to hang on every word. Her thoughtful answers to the questions she tossed out to new employees, accompanied by a hint of mischief in her smile, had Codee continuously seeking her reaction while she did her dog and pony show during orientation.

 

Codee knew she created a compelling and entertaining first impression, but she’d often felt like a phony when some of the stories she told were embellishments of the truth. Yet, the only way to truly illustrate a point was to create that connection to her audience with an intimate anecdote. She should have been an actress because the whoppers she told at these orientations were gripping. Not everything was untrue, but even the genuine experiences were enhanced for effect.

 

Codee wasn’t great with names, but Sawyer’s stood out as unusual, particularly for a woman, and whenever she passed the young admitting clerk in the hall, she made a point of saying hello and having a brief, albeit superficial conversation with her. She wished she had the ability to get to know her on a personal level, but that was out of the question. As the HR executive, she needed to maintain a strictly professional relationship with all the hospital employees—without exception.

 

Sharlie chuckled. “I don’t think I’ll have any impact on this at all. Hilda doesn’t listen to peons like me; you have a better shot at getting through to her than I do.”

 

On their way out of the cluster of offices that housed the HR department, Codee informed her receptionist, Clare, that they were heading to the preterm hearing. She was going to have to do something about the very black-and-white receptionist who wouldn’t know the color gray if her job depended on it. Against her better judgment she’d hired the dour woman who’d come with excellent references. She’d tried to get her to understand that sometimes HR needed to view a situation from many angles and adhering strictly to policy wasn’t always the right answer, especially if the policy needed changing, but Clare wanted no part of that.

 

“We’ll be back in about an hour, Clare. Can you please call the social services department and try to get a definitive date on the posting of that new social worker position? I want to know what they’re waiting for. I heard Tim gave his final blessing,” Codee directed.

 

Clare nodded. Codee noted the lack of animation from her. No smile, no other sign of acknowledgment, but at least Clare was efficient and would do as she asked. That had to count for something, she supposed.

 

 

Winter in Moses Lake had been particularly harsh this year. As Codee pushed open the door to the separate office building where the campus housed both the human resource and marketing divisions, a wintry blast of cold air hit them squarely in the face.

 

She shivered, pulled the collar of her coat close around her neck, and began a brisk walk to the main hospital. The first patch of ice that connected with her high heels caused her to slip and slide, but she managed to catch her balance before she fell on the unforgiving pavement.

 

“Why haven’t the plant guys salted yet? I’d hate to add to our crappy workers’ compensation stats with my own claim after falling in the parking lot,” Codee grumbled.

 

“We should have grabbed a pair of Yaktrax before walking over.”

 

“Yeah, hindsight. I never seem to remember. Spring cannot get here soon enough for me.”

 

Patches of snow and ice swirled throughout the parking lot like two different kinds of ice cream in a cone, and if they weren’t so hazardous, Codee might have appreciated the beauty in the patterns. When she turned to ask Sharlie another question about the upcoming meeting, her slick sole hit a patch of ice and she went down like a ton of bricks. Flailing her hands, she tried to brace her fall, but her head ended up bouncing on the pavement. The last thing she heard before the blackness enveloped her was Sharlie’s gasp.

 

 

Something cold and wet brushed Codee’s cheek and she struggled to register what had just occurred as she met the concerned gaze of her colleague. Codee looked at the gray sky as the large snowflakes landed on her eyelashes. She blinked once and focused on Sharlie’s wide-open, hazel eyes.

 

“Oh God, Codee, are you okay?”

 

Codee lifted her head and rubbed the spot that had struck the pavement. She could feel a large lump starting to form. The pulsating pain was almost more than she could bear, but she didn’t want to make a big deal about her fall. “Yeah, I’m fine. Maybe I can grab some aspirin from the employee health nurse on the way to the meeting and then ice my head afterward. I’d rather not reschedule. Sawyer is probably petrified at this point, and I don’t want to cause her any undue stress.”

 

“As much as I don’t want to admit that you’re right, because I really think you should go to the emergency department, Sawyer’s predicament is far direr than yours. I’d want to know the outcome as soon as possible if my life were hanging in the balance.” Sharlie shivered and wrapped her wool scarf around her neck.

 

Codee knew that while being terminated was an unpleasant experience, it wasn’t the end of the world. On a few occasions, it had been the spark to ignite a much-needed change in a person’s life. This was especially true for employees who weren’t in a position that was a good match for their personality or skillset.

 

Sharlie held out her arm, Codee grabbed ahold and used it as a leverage to lift herself off the ground. She didn’t want to admit that her elbow hurt almost as much as her head, but she would take care of that later. She suspected she had a small facture and would have to protect her left arm until she had a chance to go to the ED and get an x-ray. Codee thought she was fortunate to be right handed, so she could write her notes without difficulty.

 

Sharlie bent to pick up her notepad and pen, then she handed them to her boss as they began their trek to the main building.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the ED and get checked out? The grimace on your face tells me you’re in pain.”

 

“No, I’d really rather get this over with.”

 

Sharlie looked a little frightened, and Codee wondered what caused her reaction. She guessed she sounded harsher than she intended. “I’m sorry if I was short just now.”

 

“I just don’t want you to think I was being insubordinate, since that’s an offense that results in an immediate termination.”

 

Codee chuckled. “You, insubordinate? Never. Besides, you know I prefer when my staff challenges my decisions, except when I do something boneheaded like falling on the ice and deciding not to seek medical assistance right away, of course.”

 

“I know, but there are eyes and ears everywhere, and I wouldn’t want you forced into doing your duty.” Sharlie’s eyes shifted left and right as though she was looking for spies.

 

Codee shook her head. The conversation was starting to turn extremely odd. She’d never seen Sharlie act like this before. Paranoid was the word that came to mind. Something very strange was happening, and she couldn’t quite figure out what that was.

 

As they passed the admitting area, Codee heard a loud commotion as a young Latina woman wailed, “My baby, my baby.”

 

“Ma’am, if you would please provide proof of citizenship, we can take care of your child,” the admitting clerk explained.

 

“Please save my baby,” the woman pleaded.

 

Codee wanted to intervene. She wasn’t sure why the clerk was asking for proof of citizenship. This was a public hospital, and they treated everyone regardless of their ability to pay or citizenship. She believed that if anyone required corrective action, this rude clerk was the more likely recipient than Sawyer.

 

Sharlie gently pulled on her arm. “Please, Codee, you can’t intervene. We need to get to the hearing. It won’t look good for you if you’re late again.” Codee thought she saw a desperate plea in her expression before Sharlie looked away.

 

What the hell is going on? Sharlie wouldn’t meet her eyes, almost as if she felt guilty about something. Codee couldn’t imagine what might prompt that reaction. Something very strange was happening, and she couldn’t quite figure out what that was. She almost felt like she’d landed into an alternate reality and shook her head at the impossible notion.

 

 

The conference room where Sharlie had scheduled the pre-termination proceeding seemed drearier than Codee remembered. The gray walls and institutional furniture made it look like a modern-day dungeon. She couldn’t remember conducting a meeting in this little-used, bleak basement room without windows.

 

“I guess you weren’t able to get one of the conference rooms in the education center, huh?” Codee commented.

 

Sharlie had a puzzled look on her face. “No, we always do the termination hearings in this room. Are you sure you’re okay?”

 

“Yes, I’m fine. Does Sawyer have a union rep coming?”

 

“Union rep? What are you talking about?”

 

Codee thought Sharlie looked completely perplexed but ignored the inner alarm sounding loudly in her head. Before she could explore her confusion further, Sawyer shuffled into the room followed by Hilda.

 

Sawyer’s grim expression and Hilda’s blatant smirk disturbed Codee more than she would admit to. In her humble opinion, Hilda was a bully who enjoyed wielding the considerable amount of power the CFO, Tim, had given her over the last year.

 

Codee tried to remain objective, but the very first moment she’d lain eyes on Sawyer she felt a tinge of attraction, and with every interaction she’d been increasingly impressed with the younger woman’s compassion and ability to connect with just about everyone. Codee knew she’d be perfect in the social sciences department, where Sawyer’s true calling lay, if only that damn position would hurry and get posted.

 

Hilda strutted over to one of the hard metal chairs, pulled it out from the table, and sat heavily with an expectant look on her face. “Well, can we please get this over with? I have a very busy day.”

 

Codee glanced over at Sharlie, who shrugged. She pointed to one of the empty chairs, directing Sawyer to have a seat.

 

After Sharlie sat in the other empty chair across from Hilda, Codee selected the seat across from Sawyer. She placed her notebook on the cheap wood table and poised her pen to begin writing.

 

“Sawyer, why don’t you please share your perspective and provide me with some information that would alter our initial thoughts about separating you from employment,” Codee began.

 

“You mean termination,” Sawyer whispered.

 

Codee looked up and captured Sawyer’s soulful eyes. “Well, yes, but that isn’t my first choice of words to use with this process. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to change the policy language yet. I’d like to hear from you before a final decision is made.”

 

“I don’t really have much of a defense. The emergency department was very busy that day, and I suppose the number of interruptions caused too many errors. I guess I’m not very good at being an admitting clerk, but I do think if a transfer to social services is possible, that would be a better fit for me. I know you’re just doing your job and I don’t want to get you in trouble. If you can do something else and still adhere to President Trison’s directive, I would try very hard to meet the standards until I’m able to transfer.” Sawyer clasped her hands in front of her on the table.

 

“President Trison?” Codee scrunched her face. This day was evolving into one mystery after another. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have guessed she was having some strange dream or more accurately a vivid nightmare.

 

David Trison was an outrageous Patriot Party leader vying for the United States presidency, but to her knowledge, he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

 

“What about what you did for that Mexican woman’s baby? You blatantly defied the executive order and you pulled Dr. Smith into your deception. He had no reason to believe he was treating an illegal. You not only risked the hospital, but his medical license,” Hilda sneered. She leaned forward, and the aggressiveness of her response played out on her face. Her grimace and puckered lips reminded Codee of the Wicked Witch of the West.

 

“I’ll never apologize for doing the right thing, and I don’t care what the laws say, that was the right thing to do. If that means termination, then so be it. At least I will leave this world with a clear conscience. I’m not the only person in this hospital that defies that repugnant law.” Sawyer’s intense gaze bored into her, as though there was a private message she was trying to communicate.

 

“We’re wasting time. Sawyer’s admitted to violating the law and just displayed a level of insubordination that would stand on its own as grounds for termination. Our path is clear. Sharlie, I believe it’s time to escort her to the holding cell.” Hilda smiled.

 

Codee saw pure evil in Hilda’s grin, and she wasn’t sure at what point she’d lost control of the meeting, or her mind for that matter. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. Maybe she’d hit her head harder than she’d thought.

 

Sawyer stood and Sharlie escorted her toward the door. There was something in Sawyer’s defiant posture that Codee admired. She wasn’t sure what they were referring to with the situation with a Latina patient, but Sawyer clearly felt as though she’d acted in a principled manner and her values ruled whatever decision she had made.

 

Nothing made sense to Codee, but she would take a different tack with Hilda. Instead of termination, she thought Sawyer would accept a separation agreement. She would encourage Sawyer to resign, and in exchange the hospital would agree not to fight unemployment. Of course, Sawyer would also have to not file a wrongful termination claim. The hospital would also pay out her vacation time and that should give Sawyer a little money to tide her over until a social services position opened, and then she would call her personally to apply.

 

“I’ll get Vernetta. She’s the best at administering the injection,” Sharlie relayed before exiting the dreary room with Sawyer in tow.

 

Injection? What the hell is she talking about now?

 

“Well that’s thirty precious minutes of my valuable time I’ll never get back. Just send the paperwork through interoffice mail and I’ll sign it.” Hilda stood and started to walk toward the exit.

 

“Wait. So you’ll be fine if I offer a separation agreement?” Codee asked.

 

“Just do the damn paperwork so I can move forward.” Hilda slammed the door, and Codee shook her head.

 

“That woman is the most despicable human being I’ve ever worked with. I really have to talk with Tim before things get out of hand.” She gritted her teeth.

 

Sharlie shuffled back into the room a few minutes later as Codee was still trying to process what had just happened.

 

“Codee, are you okay?”

 

“This day just keeps getting stranger and stranger. I almost feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Maybe I should pinch myself to make sure I’m not having some weird dream.”

 

“Sawyer has asked that you specifically spend the final moments with her. I know this is hard for you, but I’d probably want you to be with me too.” Sharlie wouldn’t meet Codee’s eyes.

 

“Of course. I always walk them out the door and make sure I’ve answered all their questions. I don’t care what Hilda wants, I’m offering Sawyer a separation agreement, and the minute a social services position comes open, I want you to let me know. I plan on calling her personally.”

 

Sharlie scrunched up her face in confusion. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I really think you need to get your head checked out, because you keep saying strange things. But Sawyer needs you right now, so I suppose that has to take precedence.”

 

“Okay, lead the way, and I can take care of the documentation later.” Codee pushed herself up with her good hand and followed Sharlie out the door.

 

Hilda was waiting just outside wearing a satisfied, contemptuous grin.

 

 

Sawyer sat quietly in the metal chair. She wasn’t afraid of dying, but she was disappointed she hadn’t been able to follow through on her plans to get Codee involved with the mission of her rebel group. They needed an HR executive on their team, and she was perfect for the job. She had the right personality to make a difference, and Sawyer knew the engaging professional was sympathetic to their cause.

 

Sawyer remembered the first time she’d seen Codee, in orientation. She’d been dead on her feet after a long shift in the admitting department, but didn’t have any trouble at all staying awake for the half-day session. Not only was the HR leader a beautiful woman, but something in her intelligent, gray eyes touched Sawyer. They sparkled with excitement as she wove her gripping yarns, yet Codee had a sadness beneath the twinkle that not many people unearthed. It showed through on the other occasions when Sawyer ran into the magnetic woman. Codee always took the time to speak with her, even though their conversations never penetrated the wall of polite, inane small talk.

 

The beautiful woman was exactly Sawyer’s type, and she’d chastised herself on more than one occasion when she’d allowed her mind to drift, wondering what weaving her hands through Codee’s thick, blonde hair, which had just a hint of red streaked throughout, would feel like. Normally women lost that strawberry-blonde color as they matured into adulthood, but either Codee dyed her hair, or she was one of those rare individuals who retained it. Sawyer knew the woman was out of reach, yet because it was common knowledge she was a lesbian, a relationship was remotely possible—of course, that was before the termination hearing.

 

Unfortunately, it was the end of the line for her, and Codee couldn’t do much about it at this point. She wondered if her small part in the resistance had all been worth it. She decided it had. The baby had lived, and she could take that comforting thought with her to the other side. Dr. Smith knew the baby was undocumented. He was another sympathizer, but when confronted, he’d revealed his collaborators because he hadn’t been willing to accept the consequences. She couldn’t really blame him. He’d rushed to explain to her that he could do more good by touting his ignorance and continuing to save people the hospital would otherwise turn away. Far more workers were willing to ignore the law than anyone suspected. The rebel network was growing.

 

Vernetta entered the dreary room and looked nervous as her gaze seemed to shift around, never quite landing on Sawyer. She clearly felt sorry for her. She knew that administration always asked her to perform the termination because she was skilled at ensuring the injection didn’t cause any unnecessary pain. Vernetta was a sympathizer as well but kept her role in the group well hidden. Sawyer needed to ensure no one blew her cover.

 

She only had a few minutes with Vernetta before Sharlie and Codee arrived for the final dispensation.

 

“Vernetta, look at me,” Sawyer directed.

 

“Oh God, Sawyer, I don’t know if things are going to work out. There’s rumors that we’re compromised, and if Sharlie stays in the room, I don’t know if I can do this.” Tears welled in Vernetta’s eyes.

 

“You have to. We need you here continuing to work behind the scenes. I’m expendable. You’re not.” Sawyer touched her arm.

 

The creak of the door interrupted Sawyer, and she looked up to see Sharlie and Codee standing in the doorway, appearing guilty and confused, respectively. In the shadows she saw Hilda, who resembled a statue waiting in the wings to come to life when her prey least expected it.

 

“Vernetta, why are you here? I’m not sure giving Sawyer her flu shot right now is entirely appropriate. Besides, you’re not the employee health nurse,” Codee noted.

 

“Flu shot? What are you talking about? I’m here to administer the lethal injection.”

 

“I’m sorry. I thought I just heard you say ‘lethal injection.’” Codee chuckled. “Boy, I really need to get the wax out of my ears. It sounded like you’re some kind of death-penalty executioner. I had a fall earlier, and things aren’t firing quite right for me.”

 

“I suppose that’s a pretty good description of what they always ask me to do,” Vernetta answered. The disgust in her voice was palatable.

 

Codee turned her head and looked at Sharlie. She immediately looked away, and her penetrating gaze landed on Sawyer. “She’s not kidding, is she?”

 

Sharlie looked up and shook her head. Her expression was a mixture of confusion and compassion. “Vernetta administers most of the lethal injections after a termination hearing. I don’t usually stay. I don’t have the stomach for it.”

 

Sharlie turned and nearly ran out of the room, covering her mouth. She slammed the door shut on her way out, and Sawyer heard the rumbling of voices echo down the hallway. She imagined Hilda gloating all the way back to her office with Sharlie in tow.

 

“Look, I don’t know what the hell is going on, but there is no way I’m going to authorize a lethal injection. Vernetta, you go back to your unit and let me talk with Sawyer.” Codee leveled Vernetta with a look that left no room for misinterpretation.

 

Sawyer was mildly impressed with Codee’s command of the room, but wondered what cost to her personally, her directive might bring. “You can’t, Codee, they’ll find out and then you’ll be terminated.”

 

“Codee, we don’t have much time. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but the arrangements are the same as always. The morgue driver is part of the network. She’ll help us again.” Vernetta turned her gaze to Sawyer. “All we need to do is get a stretcher and transport you out of here. We can get Dr. Smith to verify that I administered the injection and you expired without complication. He owes you and he’s done this before for us. Codee, you’ll verify that I did my job. You mentioned the last time that we don’t need to worry about Sharlie. Is that still true? She looked awfully guilty just now.”

 

“Honestly I don’t know anything at this moment. This is like one big nightmare, but I’ll do whatever I need to do. We are getting out of here—alive. I have a place I can take Sawyer, but I might need a doctor to check out my head, because nothing makes sense to me. I think I have a fracture in my arm as well, but that is the least of our worries. I’m in, and you can explain everything to me later.” Codee turned her penetrating gaze back to Sawyer.

 

“I don’t think it’s wise for you to get personally involved.” Vernetta shifted her feet, appearing nervous. “I’ve been hearing rumors a slimy little mole is ratting us all out. Something feels different lately.”

 

“All the more reason for me to do this. I’m taking Sawyer to my cabin in the woods, and that’s final. I just need to get a few things at my house first. Do you think you can drive my car and meet us there? It’s the only Prius in the management parking lot….” Codee rattled off the address, dug into her coat pocket, retrieved a set of keys, and tossed them to Vernetta.

 

“Okay, we don’t have time to argue. I’ll get the stretcher.” Vernetta spun on her heel and exited.

 

Codee looked dazed, but Sawyer was too surprised at the turn of events to say anything. She wasn’t sure whom to trust, but it seemed like everyone except Sharlie and Hilda were on her side.

When Vernetta came back with the stretcher, Sawyer crawled under the sheet and they wheeled her through the back hallway to the hearse waiting in the circular drive. Since they made it to the transport vehicle without incident, Sawyer assumed no one was paying attention to their mad dash to freedom. Thank goodness most people were creeped out by death and tended to avert their eyes whenever the funeral home sent the morgue driver for a pickup. She wondered when they would stop bothering to make a show of treating the bodies with respect and begin to simply dump them in an open pit.

 

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